Manhandle Your Early Users

The approach that successful founders use to break through the traction barrier

I’ve been giving hundreds of early-stage founders the same advice over and over: You need to manhandle your users now. You know what I mean by manhandling, right? And they’re understandably confused. So here’s my reference post about manhandling.

Manhandling means guaranteeing that you achieve a good outcome by directly manipulating everything that stands between you and that outcome.

Paul Graham’s absolutely classic Do Things That Don’t Scale essay is all about founders manhandling their way to initial traction. From the essay’s introduction:

Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going. A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.

The tactic that PG depicts as “manually turning an engine’s crank” is what I mean by manhandling. What does it look like in practice? PG tells the story of how Stripe cofounders Patrick and John Collison originally manhandled their new-user onboarding:

More diffident founders ask “Will you try our beta?” and if the answer is yes, they say “Great, we’ll send you a link.” But the Collison brothers weren’t going to wait. When anyone agreed to try Stripe they’d say “Right then, give me your laptop” and set them up on the spot.

The “Collison installation” (PG’s coinage) demonstrates how you can apply a manhandling mindset to the domain of new-user onboarding. To get a new user to engage deeply with your product or service, you don’t wait for them to open your link, or read your instructions, or anything. You just pounce. You get up close and personal, manhandling every variable necessary to achieve your onboarding goal. You manhandle their laptop. You manhandle their source code. You manhandle their mom… or whoever the other relevant stakeholders are.

“Right then, give me your laptop”

When you have a manhandling mindset — when your general MO is to guarantee a good outcome by directly manipulating everything that stands between you and that outcome — you don’t even need someone to teach you that a “Collison installation” is a useful tactic; it’s already your way of being.

(By the way, if you like it when I unpack PG’s points, my Lean MVP Flowchart post unpacks his advice to do things that don’t scale. His advice isn’t about not scaling per se; it’s about always aiming at a horizon that’s a constant scale factor beyond your current scale. Then your tactics will automatically transition themselves from unscalable, to moderately streamlinable, to highly scalable.)

Manhandling vs. Handwaving

Handwaving is the opposite of manhandling: you’re making an effort to influence things toward your desired outcome, but you lack a detailed mechanistic understanding of what exactly is going to happen to get you there. Handwaving means taking a hands-off lean-back approach, while manhandling means taking a hands-on lean-forward approach.

How would you describe your mindset as a founder: Are you more of a manhandler or a handwaver? If you have a manhandling mindset, you’re better off than most founders, who seem to constantly be handwaving.

“Launching” Is A Handwaving Term

The most common screwup that founders’ handwaving mindset causes is — get ready for this blog to surprise you — launching a bloated MVP.

I’ve previously taken issue with the term “MVP” because the first thing you should be launching isn’t a “product” per se. Well, now I’m also taking issue with the term “launching”. Here’s what PG says about launching (emphasis mine):

I should mention one sort of initial tactic that usually doesn’t work: the Big Launch. I occasionally meet founders who seem to believe startups are projectiles rather than powered aircraft, and that they’ll make it big if and only if they’re launched with sufficient initial velocity. They want to launch simultaneously in 8 different publications, with embargoes. And on a tuesday, of course, since they read somewhere that’s the optimum day to launch something.

It’s easy to see how little launches matter. Think of some successful startups. How many of their launches do you remember? All you need from a launch is some initial core of users. How well you’re doing a few months later will depend more on how happy you made those users than how many there were of them.

PG is right that launching is helpful to the extent that it gets you an initial core of users. But if getting an initial core of users is your goal, and you reason backwards from that goal to your choice of tactics, then the tactics you’ll come up with aren’t what most people think of as launching. Your traction tactics will look nothing like having eight simultaneous publications write about you on a Tuesday. For this reason, the term “launch” misleads many founders into launching a bloated MVP, just like the term “MVP” misleads many founders into launching a bloated MVP.

The handwaving plan that most founders have for acquiring their initial users looks like this:

  • Build a Minimum Viable Product
  • “Launch” the finished MVP
  • ??? [Abstract claims about why this product is better for “the market”]
  • Initial core of active users!

This is obviously a recipe for failure. You’ll almost never get your initial core of active users with this approach. Yet 80% of founders keep following this recipe to their doom like lemmings.

If you can’t tell me the exact sequence of causal steps by which your users get redirected from living a day in the life without your product to living that same day with your product, then this whole “getting users” thing almost certainly won’t happen for you. My first BloatedMVP post is the story of what happens when you build your product with a handwaving mindset, and then finally the day comes to “launch” it in the sense of blindly lobbing it over the fence, and you launch it and hold your breath… and it goes nowhere. It just lands in the dirt like a dog turd.

Manhandling Your Early User Recruitment

The need to manhandle your early user recruitment is one of the key points in PG’s essay:

The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them. […]

It would be so much less work if you could get users merely by broadcasting your existence, rather than recruiting them one at a time. But even if what you’re building really is great, getting users will always be a gradual process — partly because great things are usually also novel, but mainly because users have other things to think about.

But the part that PG doesn’t touch on is when you should recruit your first user. It’s natural to think that recruiting your first user comes after having an MVP, but thinking that way is actually a critical mistake that sinks most pre-traction startups.

It’s never too early to recruit your startup’s first user, at least if you use a minimal definition of “recruit” where all you do is identify them and understand their Value Prop Story in fine-grained detail. In that sense, you can recruit your first user all the way back in the idea-brainstorming phase of your startup, before you even begin to execute.

Sometimes I’ll be pleasantly surprised that a founder has identified who their first user is going to be and how they can give value to that user. But then I ask, how have you been involving that person in your iteration process? How much value are you already giving them? And it turns out they’re not giving that person any value yet, and they’re only planning to give that person value in a few months once their product is “ready”. So the founder actually isn’t manhandling their initial users to the fullest.

If you really think you’ve identified a target user who you can create value for, then in accordance with the Lean MVP Flowchart, you should probably start manhandling value into that person’s life today. For example, if your product is supposed to be an AI-powered scheduling tool, then in the meantime before (what most people would think of as) your MVP is ready, you should just manually go into this person’s Google Calendar every day and act as their personal assistant to optimize their schedule.

This kind of aggressive manhandling approach admittedly isn’t 100% essential for every founder to do, but it seems to be highly underused. When I see a founder manhandling their initial users to create value for them in a lean and unscalable way, I consider it strong evidence in favor of your startup’s chance of success, and of your success as a founder.

Handwaving Your Early User Recruitment

I can quickly get a sense of whether a founder has a manhandling or handwaving mindset by asking them who their first user will be. If they name a specific person like “my cousin Jake’s boss Terry”, that’s a good sign that they’re manhandling their initial traction. If they say “we’ll post this on Product Hunt and see who this clicks with”, that’s an alarming handwaving answer.

Similarly, when you brag about how you’ve built a 1,000-person email list of people who are going to be super interested to try your product as soon as it’s available, but you can’t tell me the name of someone who you know confidently is going to be your first user… you’re handwaving. You’re attached to this vision of somehow getting users from your email list, even though you skipped the step of recruiting your first user during the months when you were building your product. You’re dreaming that an email list of anonymous people will one day suddenly walk themselves through your onboarding flow, like they’re little ants in your ant farm, and you can just lean back and watch their emergent behavior.

You’re flinching away from the thought of manhandling your user recruitment: the thought of having to hit up your acquaintances to narrow down possible first users, of talking to them on the phone, of selecting one of them to be your primary target, and telling them, “I’m going to make you want to give my product one hour per day of your time, five days a week, starting now”. That feels messy and lame compared to a nice clean mass email. But the time to manhandle the recruitment of your first highly-engaged user isn’t after you build and launch a product; it’s right now. It’s your #1 priority now because of the urgent need to de-risk the looming risk of death at the hands of the Great Filter.

One of the founders of Openland, a community chat platform startup I wrote about here, once proudly showed off his handwaving plan in a chat we were having:

Founder: We will go 100s of value props, it will be a lot of step ups

Me: Do you have a prediction for what value prop might click first?

Founder: No idea […] I mean I have a list of 100 value props, but reality defies predictions. Our investor calls this “serendipity hunting”.

This founder’s approach to recruiting his early users was the epitome of handwaving: he chose to lean back and watch what evolves “organically” or “serendipitously” from the random strangers who were coming to his website and poking around. This approach can sometimes be helpful once you’re past the Great Filter and you’ve built up an initial base of engaged users, so you know people are getting value from what you’ve built, and you’re seeking to understand what core subset of users is currently getting the biggest dose of value. But handwaving tactics are not up to the job of overcoming your company’s most critical life-or-death challenge, your SEAL-Team-level mission of crossing the Great Filter.

I would have liked to see him manhandle his users: to see him take his hypothesis about how his software platform creates value for communities of people, choose the strongest example of a specific community of people who his Value Prop Story applies to, and then hunt down specific people from that community and manhandle that proposed value into those people’s life, in order to de-risk the Great Filter.

It’s now two years and $3 million later, and this founder’s company still hasn’t crossed the humble but deadly Great Filter of initial traction. But he at least gets points for trying, right? Not necessarily. In my view, when someone is so clearly stuck in a handwaving mindset, they’re not really trying, because they should know that trying requires them to manhandle their early users.

Just Manhandle It

This blog is about how most founders fail to ever get initial traction. But what’s going through their head during the months or years of work on something that has zero users? They’re telling themselves a handwavy story about how they’re working to launch an MVP, and when they do, it’ll be super appealing to lots of people.

Are you one of these handwavy founders heading toward the Great Filter graveyard? If you have to ask, you probably are. But you don’t have to be! At any time, you can decide to manhandle specific people into receiving value from you. That’s all you have to do to de-risk your biggest risk. So what are you waiting for? Go manhandle an early user!

Founder/CEO of Relationship Hero